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International Journal of Politics, Culture and Society, Vol. 16, No.

4, Summer 2003 ( C 2003)

II. The Problematics of Globalization

Islamic Fundamentalism and Women’s Economic Role: The Case of Iran
Roksana Bahramitash

It is commonly believed that Islamic fundamentalism is responsible for the low female employment rate in the Middle East and North Africa. I earlier presented evidence from Indonesia indicating that the deteriorating conditions of women’s economic role in the 1990s was related to the economic circumstances of the Asian Crisis, not to the rise of political Islam (Bahranitash, 2002). In fact, in Indonesia, increasing support for the Islamic movement was itself spurred by the Asian Crisis. As a contrasting case, I here examine Iran, a country where political Islam has been in power for over two decades. If commonly held views about the impact of the Islamic religion on female employment were true, one would expect a steady or sharp decline of the female employment rate in postrevolutionary Iran. The empirical data show the reverse. Women’s formal employment rates increased in the 1990s and did so much faster than they had during the 1960s and 1970s, when a pro-Western secular regime was in power. This sharp increase in women’s employment seriously challenges the view that religion explains women’s economic status in Muslim countries. The evidence from Iran indicates that the situation of women’s employment there has followed a common pattern of elsewhere in the South—an overall increase in female employment. This fact then suggests that the forces of international political economy, rather than religion, appear to be a determining factor in the state of women’s economic role in Iran.
KEY WORDS: fundamentalism; Islamization; political Islam; Iran; Iranian women’s employment; Islamic laws and women’s rights; economic liberalization.

In two companion articles, I examine stereotypical views about the position of women in the Muslim world. The first piece examined the case of Indonesia, the largest Muslim country in the world (Bahramitash 2002).
Postdoctoral fellow at Simone de Beauvoir Institute, Concordia University, Annex MU 1455 de Maisonneuve West, MU 201-3, Montreal Quebec H3G 1M8, Canada. E-mail: 551

2003 Human Sciences Press, Inc.



This second part of the paper focuses on Iran, a country that overthrew a Western-style modernizer dictator and replaced him with an Islamist regime. What makes Iran an important case is that it is located in the Middle East, at the core of the Muslim world. This region has different political, economic, and social dynamics from Southeast Asia. The Middle East and North Africa have exceptionally low female employment, which lends support to the stereotypical views. In this region, the official rate varies from 13 percent in the United Arab Emirates and Oman to 35 percent in Morocco. To provide the reader with a general picture at the world level, in industrialized countries the employment rate for women is around 40 to 46 percent; among the less-industrialized countries, the rates in Southeast Asia are around 30 percent, in Sub-Saharan Africa between 40 and 50 percent, and in Latin America (with some exceptions, such as Peru) above 30 percent (World Development Indicator 2001). Muslim traditions can and, in many cases, do have a negative impact if they are translated into law and social practice in a conservative way. But that is true of virtually all religions. The difficulty is that such explanations can be simplistic, shifting the main focus of analysis from the material to the ideological plane while reinforcing popular (usually very negative) stereotypes. The Fall of “Modernization” and the Rise of Political Islam It is an established fact among scholars as well as policymakers that data on female employment is highly problematic and tends to undercount real participation rates. But even if the correctly measured participation rate is relatively low in the Middle East and North Africa, the notion that this can be attributed exclusively or even largely to theology is misleading. Looking at the history of political economy of the past few decades provides evidence that the fall of modernization and, more recently, of neoliberal economic policy has played a huge role in the rise of political Islam. This point was discussed in the previous paper on Indonesia, but in the case of Iran there is an additional political factor involved related to the cold war. After World War II, the United States led the West in a program of “development” in an effort to head off the appeal of communism in the South. The prevailing doctrine was “modernization”—meaning urbanization and industrialization at the expense of agriculture and rural self-sufficiency. The promise was that the application of the modernization model would lead to prosperity, defined as access to western consumer goods and lifestyles. Throughout the 1950s and 1960s, money and expertise flowed from the North to the South to modernize/westernize both the economy and the society. Also essential in many cases was the imposition of strong-arm regimes committed to imposing the essential changes in political and economic culture

Islamic Fundamentalism and Women’s Economic Role: The Case of Iran


and to building and defending the essential infrastructure through which a modernization-Westernization program could be built. By the late 1970s, it was clearly a failure (Warren 1973; Wallerstein 1979; Cardoso and Faletto 1979). Poverty and income disparity grew, while industrialization did not keep pace with urbanization and population growth. Policy makers in international institutions such as the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund (IMF) blamed the failure on the role of the state in developing countries (Bhagwati and Desai 1970; Lal 1983; Little 1982). As a result, in the 1980s, these institutions shifted to an emphasis on limiting the role of the state in economic life, cutting back public expenditure, particularly on social welfare, and shifting resources from the domestic sector to repay the foreign debts accumulated in the previous failed strategy (Elson 1995). But there was a widespread backlash. There were efforts in many parts of the South to defend and revive cultural and religious traditions as an alternative to the failed modernization model and in an effort to alleviate the social and economic distress imposed by the new market fundamentalism. In some Muslim countries, this alternative has taken the form of a return to Islamic traditions in order to deal with the unsettling fruits of forced modernization-Westernization (Beinin and Stork 1997). Indeed, this should hardly have been a surprise to the West. In areas like Afghanistan (and, where possible, in Soviet Central Asia) a Green Belt of “Islamic fundamentalism” was encouraged as a tool in the Cold War confrontation with the USSR.1 Since the end of the cold war, with mainstream economic policy’s emphasis on unregulated markets and limiting the role of the state, poverty and income disparity have been on the rise. Increased poverty has attracted many to Islam throughout the Muslim world. Many women are extremely active at the grass-roots level. Rising income disparity and poverty have increased their total burden: women are often forced to scrape for monetary income while at the same time assuming a larger workload in caring for family and extended family in the absence of state support. It is not surprising to see that the number of women who joined Hezbollah in Lebanon grow as the state collapsed. Exchanging welfare assistance for their families for a return of conservative Muslim tradition seems a low price to pay. In fact, it may not be seen as a cost at all.2 But what exactly has Islamisation meant for women? This may be answered by looking at the more radical forms of Islam that developed in Iran, Pakistan, and, more recently, Afghanistan. Though all three cases have undergone Islamisation, the experiences of women have been far from homogenous and have changed over time. In the case of Iran, feminist agitation has led to a gradual loosening of religious codes concerning women’s employment and their public role. In the case of Pakistan, a return to Shari’a laws has had much less impact on women’s entry into the labour market than



in Iran. Afghanistan is different from the other two because of its prohibition of all public engagement by females. The case of Afghanistan remains very enigmatic even to the religious leaders in that bastion of Islamisation, Iran. While westerners denounce this latest manifestation of retrograde Islamic fundamentalism, Iranian Ulamas, along with Ulamas from other parts of the Muslim world, are constantly urging the Taliban regime to comply with “Islam.” Many Ulamas point to the fact that the right to education, for example, is a religious duty spelled out in the Qur’an for men and women alike (Wadud 1999). Therefore it must not be denied to women in Afghanistan. It is difficult to resist the conclusion that Afghanistan is an aberration, precisely because its history and society are in many ways unique: Afghanistan is a tightly knit, highly conservative, and, in many areas, tribal society, in which massive poverty and poor communications with the outside world have been the historical norm. Furthermore, the country is undergoing a violent backlash against the former Communist regime’s attempt to enforce land redistribution and female emancipation. It currently faces not simply the aftermath of two decades of war, still ongoing, but also a massive drought. It is therefore highly questionable to isolate “Islam” alone as a factor determining the position of women in law and practice. In short, the position of women in the Muslim world must be looked at as a continuum. On one end there are extremely conservative countries that embrace Shari’a law in its most reactionary forms regarding the role of women. At the other, there are those countries where either Shari’a laws are greatly modified or are marginal to the legal system. Afghanistan is at the former end, Tunisia, Morocco, and Turkey are at the other. In between are places like Egypt , where the legal system has become the battleground between traditional Islamists and progressive secularists (Badran 1995).

THE EXAMPLE OF IRAN In subjecting the simple stereotype—that the rise of political Islam necessarily leads to a decline in women’s economic power—to critical scrutiny, no better case can be found than Iran. Iran was the first country in the postWorld War II era in which political Islam was the rallying cry for a successful revolution, followed by the new state formally adopting political Islam as its ruling ideology. Iran, too, has assisted the spread of political Islam to other countries. Finally, because the Islamic Revolution occurred there more than two decades ago, Iran provides us with ample time for an examination of the effects of a political program of deliberate and systematic Islamisation with particular reference to the trends in female employment. To examine those trends, this paper breaks the period under review into three components.

Islamic Fundamentalism and Women’s Economic Role: The Case of Iran


The first, to create a comparative basis, is the situation that prevailed during the systematic modernization program introduced by the Shah in the early 1960s. The second (1979–1989) covers the period when the revolutionary regime consolidated itself while at the same time engaging in a massive program to mobilize national resources for war. The third period (1990 to the present) saw a partial retreat of the state from the economy and a limited opening to the principles of economic liberalization. The Shah’s Accelerated Modernization: 1960–1979 As indicated in Figure One, from 1960 until the revolution, there was a general increase in female employment. This period is marked by the Shah’s modernization, one of the best-known facets of which was the White Revolution in 1962.3 One important outcome of the Shah’s modernization was an increase in female employment, particularly in the urban areas. Interpreting data on employment of women in the rural economy during this period is a major problem. Many women worked as unpaid family

Fig. 1. Female Employment Trend in Iran.



workers and men were regarded as the head of the household. Therefore, what women produced became part of male output, and thus outside of enumeration. Furthermore, the rural sector includes not just women engaged in planting, weeding, picking, and harvesting of products such as tea and cotton, but also in endeavors such as carpet weaving. In fact, it is still a woman’s job to spin and dye, then weave the yarn. Cloth or carpets were and still are mainly handed over to male members of the family for trade (Beck 1978:358–60). Some 70 percent of all cloth weaving was done by women and 72 percent of carpet weaving was done in the rural sector, 90 percent of that by women (Halliday 1979:191–93). Furthermore, although it was the Shah’s policy to settle nomads, among those who remained nomadic and pastoralist, things such as milk processing, preparation of animal
Female Labour as a Percentage of Total Female Population Year 1960 1965 1970 1975 1980 1985 1990 1993 1995 1998 Female Labour % of Total Female 17.9 18.45 19 19.7 20.4 20.6 21.2 23 24.2 25.94

World Development Indicator 2001

derivatives, caring for animals, fuel gathering, baking bread, and weaving, spinning, and dyeing yarn remained women’s jobs without being counted in the data (Poya 1999:45–47). These trends were reinforced by developments in the petroleum sector. At the start of the White Revolution, Iran was a fairly small producer of oil. But by 1970, it was the second largest producer in the OPEC group, its finances critically dependent on oil revenues. The rapidly rising revenues from oil were ploughed into capital-intensive industries (Moghadam 1995:176). As in other places in the world, in Iran capital-intensive industries draw largely on male labour. Therefore, to the extent industrialization did occur, it tended to exacerbate the gender gap. In the service sector, however, female employment grew quickly, much faster than in any other sector of the economy. With the expansion of education, many women entered fields like teaching, nursing, and clerical work. In fact, 43 percent of teachers during this period were women, along with 44 percent of clerical workers and 11 percent of medical and paramedical

Islamic Fundamentalism and Women’s Economic Role: The Case of Iran


personnel (Halliday 1979:191–93). The fact that such jobs were paid (unlike much rural labour) explains, in part, the steady increase in female labour indicated in during this period. Nevertheless, women constituted a huge part of those who joined the Islamicists in rallying against the Shah. The reasons for this apparent paradox go straight to the heart of the problem of the Shah’s modernization, which ultimately provided a fertile ground for the rise of political Islam (Bayat 2000). There were many reasons for the rising support for the Ayatolla Khomeini. Rural poverty sent peasants to urban areas. Industrialization was not growing fast enough to provide employment or prosperity for the urban poor (Momeni 1977). The new urban poor were both disappointed in their hopes for affluence and culturally alienated by the growing consumer economy in which they could not share.4 Shantytowns grew on the margins of cities such as Tehran and the state was unable to provide basic services such as clean water and electricity. While education and health care had improved in Iran, much as they had in Indonesia under Suharto and the Philippines under Marcos, increasing income disparity and a rising population of urban poor alongside the growing ability of the upper class to mimic Western lifestyles brought major discontent among the masses. Furthermore, the much-touted land reform of the White Revolution had left many farmers impoverished and driven up Iran’s dependence on foreign imports of food. At the same time, the Shah had become politically much more ruthless. All political activities, from forming a political party to publishing newspaper articles and books were subject to heavy suppression. Torture and imprisonment of dissidents became commonplace. The Iranian secret police (SAVAK, trained by the Israeli Mossad) along with an army trained by Americans were the backbone of his power (Ebtekar 2000). In addition, the Shah created his own guard javid (“eternal army”) to safeguard his position. In view of the evident failure of a Westernization-modernization built around land reform and industrialization, neither of which achieved anything close to their declared objectives, there was a quest for an alternative. At the same time among many leftist activists, the prospect of a Communist insurrection seemed increasingly remote and, of course, the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan did little to increase its attractiveness. At the same time, the Americans began a concerted if covert effort to combat the spread of communism through the creation of a Green Belt, namely an Islamicist movement on the frontiers of the Soviet Union. Concurrently, inspired by the Algerian anticolonial struggle, thinkers like Ali Shariati preached a revolutionary interpretation of Islam in Iran. Shariati stressed the role of Islam as a religion of social justice (Sullivan 2000: 239). This new



interpretation of Islam accommodated the political ideas necessary to mobilise people, particularly the young and the educated, against the repression and social injustices of the Shah.5 It was under such conditions that many women joined the Islamicist movement. Indeed, granting women the right to vote was meaningless when neither men’s nor women’s vote had any impact in the context of the Shah’s monarchy. Many female activists were imprisoned and tortured. Much as had Marcos and Suhrato, the Shah created a National Women’s Organization that was representative of upper- and middle-class women only.6 Women from low-income families who respected tradition were marginalised by an atmosphere that strongly discouraged veiled women from entering certain public places where middle- and upper-class women gathered.7 In the late 1970s, many women from an educated, middle-class background joined the Islamist movement, some of them in response to Ali Shariati and others who preached about an Islamic model based on a general concept of social justice (Abrahamian 1982:464–73, Sullivan 2000:239). While SAVAK continued to torture feminist activists and repressed any feminist organization not associated with those created by the state (Bahar 1983), Khomeini tempered the reactionary position he had taken in the 1960s vis-a-vis the role of women and began to appeal equally to men and women. ` He stressed the importance of female mobilization, therefore earning the support of many women.

The Islamic Republic and the State-Controlled Economy: from 1979 Until the End of the War with Iraq in 1988 With increased political tension, Khomeini finally was able to unify the opposition against the Shah and finally force him to leave the country. With the Shah’s departure, his provisional government soon collapsed, paving the way for the 1979 Islamic Republic to come into power with overwhelming support shown through popular vote. However, after the new Islamicist regime consolidated its power, it moved away from its original position of attempting to unite all opposition forces and became the exclusive preserve of those who followed the Ayatollah’s line. This shift had serious implications for the position of women. The new Islamic state gradually adopted an increasingly conservative religious interpretation of the role of women, and excluded them from the social and political mainstream, even though the regime had been brought into power with women’s massive support. Therefore the new regime soon marginalized all women’s groups except those that adhered strictly to religious codes spelled out by Ayatollah Khomeini (Paidar 1995).

Islamic Fundamentalism and Women’s Economic Role: The Case of Iran


Under the new Islamicist ideology, women came to be viewed primarily, if not exclusively, as mothers, and their main place was to be the home. This was stressed in the new Constitution. The state reversed all legal reforms which had favoured women during the Shah’s regime and replaced them with laws in accordance with its orthodox interpretation of “Islam.” The ideal image for a woman became that of the daughter of the Prophet Mohamad, Fatimah (Darrow 1985). Other images of women were dismissed as Western. Women were banned from certain professions; for example, they could not practise law, either as judges or lawyers (Afshar 1996). Certain subjects at the university level, such as civil engineering, were closed to women. These changes in women’s status and legal position were far more serious for women from the upper and middle classes, for those who were from an educated urban background than for low-income urban, rural, and tribal women. The Shah had directed his efforts for the advancement of women particularly at those of the upper and middle classes. Under the new regime, however, many women who had held positions of prestige were either forced to leave their jobs or were made very uncomfortable if they held on to them (Poya 1999). One of the factors that created a problem for women was the imposition of an Islamic dress code, the hejab. It was precisely rejection of the dress code that led many women of upper- and middle-class background to leave their jobs. There were other reasons for the disproportionate setback for upperand middle-class women in the field of employment. Many low-income families in either urban or rural areas relied heavily on the income that women brought in, and a change of state ideology or dress code could not force these women out of their jobs as easily as it did for the other classes. In addition, certain industries could not survive without high female participation. For instance, it would be unimaginable to think that the new regime could ban women from the agricultural sector. Thus, the overall impact of state policy did not do much to force women out of the labour market as might be expected at first glance—in fact, indicates a gradual increase. It should be noted, however, that there are discrepancies between national and international data on female employment in Iran put out by Iran’s Statistical Yearbook and World Development Indicator. The national data show a far lower employment rate than international data gathered by the International Labour Organization (ILO) in Geneva, where far more elaborate data processing methods were applied. The ILO, where there is a great awareness of the problem of underreporting female employment, often goes beyond relying only on national data by conducting small-scale surveys to get a more accurate picture of female employment.8 (Using international data also provides a point of reference to better compare Iran with other countries.)



Islamic Republic: State Withdrawal from the Economy After 1988 The question is, then, why, in spite of state policies that defined women’s major role as mothers and homemakers and targeted upper- and middleincome women for discriminatory treatment, was there a steady increase in the percentage of formal employment among women? The answer lies in an increase of employment for women from lower-income groups. This is not to suggest that the state was committed to expanding opportunities for lowincome women. In the period after the revolution, state policy discouraged women from employment outside the home, regardless of their social class. However, with the invasion by Iraq in 1981 and the simultaneous imposition of economic sanctions against Iran, two important processes occurred. As the economy went into recession and rising inflation eroded people’s real income, those at the bottom of the social ladder suffered the most (Behdad 1995, Moghadam 1995). The drop in disposable income made it progressively more difficult for many families to remain reliant on a single income-earner. Increasingly, many women had to seek employment for their families’ survival. In effect, poverty, war, and economic sanctions led to increased female labour-force participation, in spite of the efforts and ideology of the regime. War and the reduction of state revenue due to falling oil prices also forced the Islamicist regime to relay on women’s volunteer work. Khomeini himself called for religious women to become involved in supporting the revolution’s goal and to extend their support in order to subsidize two major state concerns, the military and the welfare state. Indeed, the latter was the very reason for which revolution had come about—the Islamicists appealed to the Iranian masses because of the increasing income disparity and growing numbers of absolute poor during the Shah’s regime. Hence, once again, the Ayatollah appealed to women, this time to make the dreams of the revolution come true and deal with the impact of an imposed war (Poya 1995:233). Over and over, Khomeini called for millions of Iranians, including women, to join the Islamic Jihad (Holy Struggle) against poverty and social deprivation: he named their collective effort “the army of 20 million” (artesh bist milliony). In response, many women, a great number from low-income and traditional families, engaged in various activities in order to help the state. They participated en masse in social welfare programs, particularly for the families of those who died during the revolution and the war. Jihad helped inspire other organizations. For instance, jihad sazandegy (Reconstruction Struggle) and Bassije (mass mobilization effort) were designed to address a host of issues other than poverty and welfare. Jihad sazandegy mobilized many devoted Muslim women to help rebuild the rural economy as part of their religious duty to build an Islamic nation. Also in the context of the rural economy, many women got involved in activities such

Islamic Fundamentalism and Women’s Economic Role: The Case of Iran


as setting up local cooperatives to alleviate the impact of both war and economic sanctions. Similarly Bassije Khaharan (Sister’s Moblization Effort) brought many women together in an effort to make food and clothing for soldiers. Many of these women were trained in basic first aid and were sent to hospitals to deal with staff shortages. Khomeini had also made a nationwide commitment to eradicate illiteracy. This brought masses of women into local mosques as volunteers to educate illiterate women. The literacy campaign became far more successful than that of the Shah with far fewer funds, because female teachers were volunteers and many traditional families welcomed the campaign (Mehran 1999). Since Khomeini made literacy a religious duty for men and women equally, few husbands could prevent their wives from going to the local mosques for education even if they had so wished. The benefits of the successful literacy campaign were twofold. On the one hand, the literacy rate among women increased; on the other, many religious women working as volunteers took an increasingly public role, particularly as the literacy campaign branched into others such as military training for women. The literacy campaign in itself provided increased skills for many women, preparing them for different types of employment. As important and as varied as women’s volunteer work was during this period, it was never taken into account in official labour-force data. Such a massive omission of the volunteer aspect of women’s work obviously helps explain why, in the official numbers on female employment grow so slowly, despite the massive involvement of women in the economy. This slow growth of employment opportunities applied not just to women. Rather, it was a more general result of state policy. During the 1980s, the new regime was heavily interventionist. Nationalization of many private companies, especially those owned by the Shah and his supporters, led to serious problems with lack of proper management and trained staff who had been forced out of their jobs by the Islamicists. In addition to the lack of competence of state officials, the same type of corruption that existed during the Shah’s rule started to reappear among functionaries of the new regime and among cadres of the Islamicist organizations in charge of running nationalized enterprises. Furthermore, economic sanctions against Iran disrupted imports of raw materials and caused a fall in general productivity. For all of these reasons the economy went into a nosedive during the 1980s and both male and female employment suffered. The war with Iraq ended in 1988 and one year later Ayatollah Khomeini died. These two events marked the beginning of a new era. In the early 1990s, the old strategy of economic nationalism, import substitution, and inwardlooking economic planning gave way to a more outward-looking, openmarket economy (Salehi-Isfahani 1999). Furthermore, as the war ended,



the state began to view foreign capital as a potential source of investment. During the 1980s, Iran had attempted to avoid foreign debts, but by the late 1980s and early 1990s, borrowing from external creditors accelerated. Along with the increased attempts to attract foreign capital came a deliberate policy of withdrawing the state from the economy, something the end of the war further encouraged. With the reduction of the role of the developmentalist state came a move towards privatization, deregulation, and further devaluation of the riyal (Behdad 1995). As part and parcel of the neoliberal economic policy guidelines, the same type which all debtor states subject to World Bank and IMF dictates must follow, the Iranian government also had to back off from its earlier commitment to the expansion of the welfare state. However, this new, more liberal policy orientation actually increased the participation rate for women. Reconstruction boosted labour demand in general and for women in particular. At the same time feminist agitation had slowly forced the state to change its initial antagonistic position toward female employment outside the home and against women’s participation in the public arena. Many women fought hard to bring about changes— interestingly enough, a large number of those challenging the authorities were from the Islamicist movement itself. These Islamicist feminist activists were in some cases much more effective in taking the authorities to task than secular ones, since they could use Muslim doctrine and religious interpretations as the basis of their grievances. For example, these women were able to force a law which enabled women to demand wages for housework in 1992 (Hoodfar 1999).9 Part of the strength of the Isalmicist women’s movement came from the fact that so many of its members had worked sincerely for the goals of the revolution. Their plea was effective. Once women made public the facts about their huge sacrifices, it seemed only fair and “Islamic” for them to want to be treated with justice. As self-consciousness grew, women became more defiant of discriminatory practices by the Islamic Republic. For instance, widows of the revolution and the war made demands from the state for access to higher education and employment to compensate their losses (Zaneh Rouz 2000). Many young, often educated women who had followed the Ayatollah and volunteered to marry handicapped war veterans (and provide them with fulltime nursing care) pressed for recognition of their unpaid work. Thus, these volunteer women who had given so much support to the Islamic regime slowly grow reluctant to continue their services for free while their male counterparts were paid. They demanded, and sometimes forced their way into paid positions. As a result, Islamacist institutions that had been created during the early part of the revolution such as Jihad sasandegi increasingly employed those who were either from the families of veterans of the war and revolution or had served as volunteers.

Islamic Fundamentalism and Women’s Economic Role: The Case of Iran


Furthermore, feminist agitation has gained ground for female employment in the professions that the revolutionary state in the late 1970s and the early 1980s had closed to women (Kian 1985). As an example, pressure on the state finally forced the judiciary to allow women to become lawyers and judges (Afshar 1996). As the state was forced to relax strict religious codes over the issue of female employment, Iran’s need for skilled labour brought back many of those upper- and middle-class women, particularly teachers and nurses, who at the outset of the revolution had left or were forced out of the labour force. A huge need for teachers, especially at the primary level, produced a great demand for women. At the same time the percentage of highly educated women increased—it currently exceeds that of men (52 percent of those who entered university were women by 1999) (Poya 1999:106.) The increase in the percentage of highly educated women and feminist agitation in turn has had further feedback into the system, as illustrated by the increasing number of female journalists highly critical of the regime. (The percentage of female journalist has increased by far from that in the 1970s during the Shah’s regime.) Female journalists have been the first to organize themselves along professional lines—Iran’s anjomae senfye roznamehe negarane zan (female journalists association) became the country’s first independent union. At the same time, with the opening of the economy and the increase in the relative size of the private sector, the demand for administrative jobs has increased and many women have found employment in the private sector, particularly in the expanding service sector. Finally, the Islamic Republic’s idea of sexual segregation has actually led to an expansion of certain jobs for women. For instance, at the university level, women have been encouraged to become pediatricians and gynecologists, while men have been discouraged from these medical specialities. The idea of seclusion also has increased the percentage of women in other jobs, such as taxi driver. Recently twelve taxi agencies have been set up in the holy city of Mashhad; staffed and managed entirely by women, they employ 200 female taxi drivers who own their cars and are provided with cell phones (Zaneh Rouz 2001). However, the real percentage increase of female employment is not reflected fully in the official data. There has been an expansion of the urban, informal economy. Like other parts of the world where neoliberal policies are implemented, inflation, deregulation, and privatization have meant rising prices of basic goods, exacerbating poverty and income disparity. At the same time, the decline in state subsidies and social care programs have forced more women to seek employment, many in the informal economy. Expansion of the informal economy and sexual segregation have led to a growth in the number of women who work at home in vocations where their clients are women. The number of female, home-based, income-generating



activities—hairdressers, seamstresses, food processors, and prostitutes and beggars—has increased (Afshar 1999). Furthermore, the official data understate the amount of female employment because they neglect all non-remunerated work, not simply household but also community work. In Iran in recent years, there has been a noticeable increase in the amount of volunteer-community work done by women, not this time because of women heeding the call of the religious authorities but because of the impact of the new liberalization program. As the state’s ability to deliver social welfare services has decreased, there has been more pressure for women to take up the slack (Poryamin et al. 2001). As a result, there are now neighbourhood organizations run by women to deal with issues such as environmental problems. For example, many women are engaged in recycling campaigns. In Iran, as almost everywhere in the world, the fact that many women are involved in community work designed to improve the quality of human life is overlooked in official data: since this work carries no dollar signs, it is not officially regarded as “work.” In spite of all the barriers to women, paid female employment has increased. This runs counter to the common stereotypical assumption associating the rise of political Islam and with a decrease in paid employment for women. During the rule of the Shah and his secular policies, the percentage of women’s employment increased only very slowly. It did not change during the decade that followed the establishment of the Islamic Republic, although its class composition may have altered. The same slow growth continued until the second phase of the Islamic Republic, when the employment rate for women accelerated sharply. If the Muslim religion is the explanatory factor for low female employment in the Middle East and North Africa, one would expect a fall of the employment rate below that of the Shah’s period, not a sharp increase. Rather than think of the trends in employment as reflecting “Islam,” it makes much more sense to compare them to general trends throughout the world (Anker 1998). Across the South, there are serious barriers to women’s paid employment. In some countries the situation is improving; in some it is getting worse. Yet even where paid employment is rising for women, it does not translate automatically into an improvement in the standard of living or economic decision-making power. Rising formal employment in the South has take place simultaneously with an increase in the general level of poverty among women due to the imposition of neoliberal and market fundamentalist policies by the IMF and the World Bank (Bhatta 2001). It would appear that the most dangerous type of fundamentalism is not religious but market “fundamentalism,” which continues to plague the lives of an increasing number of women from the South, exacerbating poverty and political instability and, in turn, feeding into radical religious movements.

Islamic Fundamentalism and Women’s Economic Role: The Case of Iran


Any growing power of political Islam is more a result that a cause of this phenomenon; even where it assumes power, the experience of women is neither immutable within any country nor consistent across countries.

CONCLUSION Reviewing Iran’s empirical evidence indicates a steady increase in female employment trends during the past two decades since the Islamic revolution. This overall increase, particularly since the 1990s, has been much more impressive than during the previous secular, pro-Western regime. Data on Iran contradict commonly held views about the impact Islam has had on female participation rates in the Middle East. In fact, the rise of political Islam broke the barriers to participation in public life that had previously existed for women, especially those of lower socioeconomic background. A close review of the way in which the Islamacist movement relied on women’s political mobilization reveals the fact that women in general and those from the lower classes in particular were brought into the public domain as part of a revolutionary interpretation of Islamic religious doctrine. It was Khomeini’s call for women to come to street marches first and then to take part en masse in volunteer mobilizations that augmented women’s public presence in Iranian society. The overwhelming participation of women in Khomeini’s different jihads, particularly the jihad to fight illiteracy, was path-breaking for many women of the lower classes and for peasants. The success of the jihad for literacy along with public education has been an important factor in high female educational attainment in more recent years and as well as for their rising employment rate. For almost a decade after the early stages of the revolution, the government was very much committed to welfare for all. Food and housing subsidies, as well as public education and health care continued as long as Khomeini was alive. But with the Ayatollah’s death and the election of Hashemi Rafsanjani to the presidency of Iran, neoliberal policies replaced those of the welfare state of the Khomeini years. This marked a new era; in the late 1980s, when President Rafsanjani came to power, open-market policies led to economic measures such as devaluation of the currency (which increased the cost of living for the poor), privatization (which left many workers unprotected), and the decline of social services, all of which forced many women to enter the labour market. Some of these women, who previously had worked on a volunteer basis, could no longer afford to maintain their families without being paid. Rising poverty and the decline of the welfare state has resulted in an acceleration of the growth of formal as well as informal employment for women since the 1990s. However, although there



has been a remarkable increase in female employment, there may be little to celebrate in this since the increase in the employment rate, similar to that of the rest of the Third World, is not necessarily an indication of improving economic conditions for women. Data on employment for women throughout the South indicate a steady increase of female employment. In fact, since the 1980s, with the increase in world trade and expansion of the market economy, more women in the South are employed, but this increase has been accompanied by a concomitant increase in female poverty. According to the Human Development Report 1997, out of 1.3 billion people who live on less than a dollar a day, 70 percent are women, and the rate is on the rise. Therefore, although the proportion of women who work for pay and outside their home has increased, this increase is not automatically an indication of improving conditions for women in the Third World. Iran, in that respect, is just like any other Third World country. This suggests that international forces of political economy and free-market policies may be more important than Islamic religion in explaining changes in female employment in Iran. ENDNOTES
1. Similarly, in Occupied Palestine, Israel initially encouraged the growth of Hamas to undermine the support previously given overwhelmingly to the PLO—a fact which makes the current situation, in which Hamas has been taking the lead in the intifada, particularly ironic. 2. This is certainly the opinion of various scholars, including Andrea Becker and Homa Hoodfar who worked in the Shia’ slum areas around Beirut (Interviews, Montreal, 1999– 2000). 3. The White Revolution was a package of policy guidelines designed to facilitate the transition from an agrarian to an industrial/modern economy. The fundamental basis of the package was an attempt at land reform imposed by the central government in order to head off a possible peasant uprising. The White Revolution (also called the Shah and People’s Revolution) was meant to give the impression of revolutionary change, while ensuring that the government remained fully in control of the course of events. 4. As I remember vividly, during this period the slogan was, “each Iranian must have a car.” 5. For many of us—middle-class, educated, young women—Shariati and his lectures in the Hoseynieh Ershad Mosque held a special appeal. We admired his courage as well as his message and his knowledge. He managed to combine both the traditionalist and the modernist trends. 6. The Shah himself did not have a very high opinion of women: in an interview with Italian journalist Oriana Fallaci, he had criticised the notion of female equality (1976). His reforms, therefore, were not a genuine attempt to bring equality for women, but rather an effort to westernize Iranian women. 7. In fact, for my own wedding, which was held in the Tehran Army club, it was written on the invitation card that veiled women were not allowed to attend. As the result, some members of my family were sent back home. 8. Interview with previous head of ILO statistical bureau, Dr. Mehran. 9. According to this law, a man who intends to divorce his wife without proving fault on her part must first pay housework wages for the duration of marriage.

Islamic Fundamentalism and Women’s Economic Role: The Case of Iran


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